Daily Notifications
Sign up for free emails to receive the feature story every morning in your inbox at


Thetans in the Jungle: Scientology in Papua New Guinea’s Highlands

[Boys from the village of Napamogona. Photo by Charles Fourtree.]

Chris Owen provides yet another startling look at Scientology history that you probably haven’t heard about…

Scientology in the West is in an apparently terminal decline, hemorrhaging members and beset by bad publicity. Yet a perhaps unacknowledged story of Scientology is how it is gaining members in parts of Asia (notably Taiwan) and elsewhere in the developing world.

There’s a lot of reasons why this might be so — it benefits from being seen as “Western” and “modern,” it has a lot of money to promote itself, and the critical coverage that it’s received in English and other European languages isn’t always accessible in other parts of the world. However, Scientology’s roots in a very specific time and place – mid-20th century America, where founder L. Ron Hubbard devised its key beliefs – don’t always translate easily to other places and cultures.

One fascinating example of a failed Scientology outreach project comes from a most unlikely place: the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea (PNG). With its well-known affinity for the wealthy, Scientology might seem out of place in a rural, mountainous, densely-forested region of a developing country. Nonetheless, missionaries have long been active there: mainstream Christians most obviously, since the colonial period, but also Mormons and Scientologists in more recent years.

In early 2004, the German anthropologist Regina Knapp was carrying out a research project in Napamogona village in the Bena region of the Eastern Highlands. She was born in the country and returned to it to carry out anthropological research, which involved her being adopted by a Bena family.


To her great surprise, her Bena ‘mother’ greeted her one day in February with the words, “John Travolta na Tom Cruise bai kam long ples” (“John Travolta and Tom Cruise will come to the village”).

This unlikely prospect was promised by representatives of I HELP, the International Hubbard Ecclesiastical League of Pastors – a Scientology front group which seeks to promote Scientology to new audiences around the world. It had established itself in PNG in 2003 and set up a small educational project in the coastal city of Lae. Coincidentally, a woman from Napamogona who lived in Lae had become one of I HELP’s first trainees. She convinced the I HELP hierarchy to set up a second base in her home village, from where it would propagate Scientology to the local people.

The project promised to establish a new school in the village with access to 52 educational training courses and free computers, part of a shipment of 3,000 from Australia. The road to the school would be paved and a power supply provided, which would help to improve the village’s economy.

Napamogona’s leaders welcomed the initiative and granted I HELP the lease of some land in the village to accommodate two schoolhouses. Through March 2004, the villages worked hard to construct the new buildings and prepared to welcome Cruise and Travolta for their planned opening in April, donating time, money, and labor to the project.

Doubts soon set in, however, particularly among local Christians who wanted to know more about Scientology’s belief system. They realized on reading Dianetics and other Scientology materials that the Scientologists did not, in fact, believe in God but instead “in the stars and the moon” (perhaps a reference to the Xenu story).

The construction project slowed down when the villagers had to deal with the deaths of two elders. Further doubts were created by the non-arrival of Cruise and Travolta or the promised computers or power supply in April. Instead, two PNG Scientologists from the coast turned up and began teaching I HELP students from the half-finished buildings.

Educational development projects often aim to provide free schooling to their partner communities. Scientology, though, charged fees for the lessons it gave at Napamogona. The cost, ranging from a minimum of 50 kina ($15) to several hundred, was a significant disincentive. Only a few local people chose, or perhaps could afford, to pay. (Scientology’s approach in this matter is governed by Hubbard’s ‘doctrine of exchange,’ which discourages providing anything for free.)

Another problem was the nature of the training. Regina Knapp’s Bena ‘sister’ was one of the school’s first students and aimed to make up for her previous lack of education. She hoped to improve her literacy and obtain a certificate that would qualify her for better paid work. Instead, she was told on her first day that she would need to undergo Scientology ‘auditing’ and confess all her secrets to her trainer, a young man from the coast, with the aid of an E-meter.

She found this deeply offensive, intrusive and totally ignorant of the local Bena taboos and rules. The supposed literacy courses – presumably a variant of Hubbard’s ‘Study Technology’ – were completely different from those in ‘normal’ schools, and she learned that the promised certificate would not be recognized by any public institution. Not surprisingly, she left angrily after a few sessions.

The Scientologists’ insistence on auditing students and obtaining private personal information from them conflicted with the values of the Napamogona, who reacted with great suspicion. As Knapp’s ‘mother’ told her, “They monitor our lives and I am not clear why they want to monitor our lives. I don’t think that they have the right to monitor our lives. Only God, He sees and judges us, but no man on this earth has the right to monitor our lives.”

There was a fundamental clash between Scientology’s practices and local Bena beliefs. To the Bena, the Scientologists were seeking to take on parts of Bena persons – their personal secrets – and so increase their strength and power over them. If people gave away their secrets, the Scientologists could force their power back on the villagers, weakening their spirits and allowing them to be controlled.

In Bena terms, this was a highly negative form of exchange, analogous to magical practices and evil forces. Christians in the village began to associate Scientology with Satan, while non-Christians felt that it resembled harmful sorcery and witchcraft.

Napamogona’s enthusiasm for the project faded and work on the schoolhouses stopped. They remained unfinished with partly covered roofs and missing walls, though I HELP members continued to use them. Rather than trying to resolve its problems with the community, however, I HELP began demanding more from them. Villagers were told that they needed to finish the buildings quickly because Tom Cruise and the computers were now on their way to Papua New Guinea.

A new directive was issued that each person who joined I HELP was to recruit thirty new students; the community was to recruit a total of 3,000 people to join the school. This only caused further tensions, as the organisation was seen to be escalating its demands on the villagers without providing anything useful in return.


June arrived but not Tom Cruise or the promised computers. One of I HELP’s few remaining supporters in Napamogona speculated that Cruise and Travolta were waiting for the schoolhouses to be finished and would not come until the village had prepared itself. However, many of the other villagers felt deceived and angry, particularly as some of them had paid fees but received nothing useful in return.

As one of them told Knapp, “We wasted our time, energy, working force, and material, like nails, and what did we get? It seems as if they are lying to us. Some of us paid our school fees already. But they never got a valid certificate. And the money, they don’t give it back. We have enough of their ways now and it seems as if the community will make a decision and force them to leave our village.”

Knapp herself appears to have become an object of suspicion for the Scientologists, almost certainly standing out to them as a foreigner. She had been adopted as a family member by the villagers and participated on equal terms in village life, though inevitably as a waitskin her position was somewhat privileged. The Scientologists, however, refused to interact with her at all and denied her requests for an interview with one of the school’s teachers. This caused further suspicion among the people of Napamogona, one of whom concluded angrily that “they must be hiding something.”

Scientology’s doctrine rejects the notion that Scientology’s own behavior could cause problems. Instead, Hubbard wrote, trouble is caused by antagonistic people whom he identified as “Potential Trouble Sources” (PTS) and “Suppressive Persons” (SPs). It’s likely that the Scientologists considered Knapp to be a PTS or SP who was poisoning the minds of the villagers against I HELP, and rejected her on that account. However, their rejection would have been seen by the villagers as an unjustified insult against an honored member of their community.

The villagers ended up abandoning the I HELP project, which continued for a while to hold infrequent classes with students brought up from the coast. It was finally terminated following a confrontation described to Knapp by eyewitnesses. Two I HELP representatives – a man and a woman – arrived in Napamogona in a big black Toyota with mirrored windows, speaking English so fast that very few of the villagers could understand them. The woman told the villagers about I HELP’s beautiful properties in Hawaii and New Zealand and promised that if they became members, they could travel there, meet new people and obtain money for their village school.

Then, according to Knapp’s informants, the man unleashed a volley of complaints and threats. He criticized the villagers for not completing the school buildings and threatened that if they did not promote the school, they would remain “bush kanakas” (a highly derogatory term).

He emphasized the villagers’ obligation to pay their fees, as otherwise the school would have to leave Napamogona and move to another community, which would gain all the benefits. The villagers responded by ignoring the visitors and their demands. Knapp was told that the visitors drove off shouting, “You will never be ready for us” and were never seen again.

I HELP did move, to the nearby larger town of Goroka, but failed there too when most of the students abandoned it – an event that became the butt of jokes in Napamogona. Its failure stands in contrast to the success of the Mormons, whose gleaming white church and sharp-suited American missionaries have become an established sight in the town. The half-finished buildings formerly used by I HELP in Napamogona were completed by the villagers and converted into a community building and a storehouse.

Knapp’s unexpected first-hand observation of Scientology’s attempts to propagate itself in the Eastern Highlands showed, on that occasion at least, an organisation totally unprepared to deal with different cultural contexts. Scientology originated in a mid-20th century America that was fascinated by new technology (like the E-meter) and psychoanalysis (which auditing resembles). This, obviously, was very different from early 21st century Papua New Guinea.

Some of Scientology’s practices were not necessarily incompatible with those of the Bena, but relations broke down over the impression that it was weakening the community by taking things of value – time, money, support and personal secrets – without adequately reciprocating. Antisocial and greedy behavior in exchange is closely associated with witchcraft and sorcery in many Melanesian cultures. Thus, as Knapp has pointed out, “the organization’s attempt to establish a training center in the community was therefore bound to fail.”

With thanks to Regina Knapp, whose book “Culture Change and Ex-Change: Syncretism and anti-syncretism in Bena, Eastern Highlands, Papua New Guinea” (2017) documents this affair.

— Chris Owen


HowdyCon 2019 in Los Angeles

This year’s HowdyCon is in Los Angeles. People tend to come in starting on Thursday, and that evening we will have a casual get-together at a watering hole. We have something in mind, but for now we’re not giving out information about it.

Friday night we will be having an event in a theater (like we did on Saturday night last year in Chicago). There will not be a charge to attend this event, but if you want to attend, you need to RSVP with your proprietor at tonyo94 AT gmail.

On Saturday, we are joining forces with Janis Gillham Grady, who is having a reunion in honor of the late Bill Franks. Originally, we thought this event might take place in Riverside, but instead it’s in the Los Angeles area. If you wish to attend the reunion, you will need to RSVP with Janis (janisgrady AT gmail), and there will be a small contribution she’s asking for in order to help cover her costs.

HOTEL: Janis tells us she’s worked out a deal with Hampton Inn and Suites, at 7501 North Glenoaks Blvd, Burbank, (818) 768-1106. We have a $159 nightly rate for June 19 to 22.



Scientology’s celebrities, ‘Ideal Orgs,’ and more!

[The Big Three: Tom Cruise, John Travolta, and Kirstie Alley]

We’ve been building landing pages about David Miscavige’s favorite playthings, including celebrities and ‘Ideal Orgs,’ and we’re hoping you’ll join in and help us gather as much information as we can about them. Head on over and help us with links and photos and comments.

Scientology’s celebrities, from A to Z! Find your favorite Hubbardite celeb at this index page — or suggest someone to add to the list!

Scientology’s ‘Ideal Orgs,’ from one end of the planet to the other! Help us build up pages about each these worldwide locations!

Scientology’s sneaky front groups, spreading the good news about L. Ron Hubbard while pretending to benefit society!

Scientology Lit: Books reviewed or excerpted in our weekly series. How many have you read?



[ONE year ago] Mike Rinder: Scientology is ‘disappearing at a consistent unchanging unwavering rate’
[TWO years ago] Scientology for your plants? In the grand tradition of L. Ron Hubbard, yes!
[THREE years ago] Scientology’s demonology: Where L. Ron Hubbard got the idea for your space cooties
[FOUR years ago] Robert Vaughn Young on L. Ron Hubbard’s final days — another ‘Secret Lives’ video outtake
[FIVE years ago] Florida attorney Ken Dandar hit with $1 million penalty for taking on Scientology
[SIX years ago] Why Isn’t Scientology More Open About Its Space Opera Beliefs? It’s the Best Part!


Scientology disconnection, a reminder

Bernie Headley has not seen his daughter Stephanie in 5,405 days.
Valerie Haney has not seen her mother Lynne in 1,534 days.
Katrina Reyes has not seen her mother Yelena in 2,038 days
Sylvia Wagner DeWall has not seen her brother Randy in 1,518 days.
Brian Sheen has not seen his grandson Leo in 581 days.
Geoff Levin has not seen his son Collin and daughter Savannah in 469 days.
Christie Collbran has not seen her mother Liz King in 3,776 days.
Clarissa Adams has not seen her parents Walter and Irmin Huber in 1,644 days.
Carol Nyburg has not seen her daughter Nancy in 2,418 days.
Jamie Sorrentini Lugli has not seen her father Irving in 3,192 days.
Quailynn McDaniel has not seen her brother Sean in 2,538 days.
Dylan Gill has not seen his father Russell in 11,104 days.
Melissa Paris has not seen her father Jean-Francois in 7,024 days.
Valeska Paris has not seen her brother Raphael in 3,191 days.
Mirriam Francis has not seen her brother Ben in 2,772 days.
Claudio and Renata Lugli have not seen their son Flavio in 3,033 days.
Sara Goldberg has not seen her daughter Ashley in 2,072 days.
Lori Hodgson has not seen her son Jeremy and daughter Jessica in 1,784 days.
Marie Bilheimer has not seen her mother June in 1,310 days.
Joe Reaiche has not seen his daughter Alanna Masterson in 5,399 days
Derek Bloch has not seen his father Darren in 2,539 days.
Cindy Plahuta has not seen her daughter Kara in 2,859 days.
Roger Weller has not seen his daughter Alyssa in 7,715 days.
Claire Headley has not seen her mother Gen in 2,834 days.
Ramana Dienes-Browning has not seen her mother Jancis in 1,190 days.
Mike Rinder has not seen his son Benjamin and daughter Taryn in 5,492 days.
Brian Sheen has not seen his daughter Spring in 1,598 days.
Skip Young has not seen his daughters Megan and Alexis in 2,000 days.
Mary Kahn has not seen her son Sammy in 1,872 days.
Lois Reisdorf has not seen her son Craig in 1,455 days.
Phil and Willie Jones have not seen their son Mike and daughter Emily in 1,950 days.
Mary Jane Sterne has not seen her daughter Samantha in 2,204 days.
Kate Bornstein has not seen her daughter Jessica in 13,313 days.


Posted by Tony Ortega on April 2, 2019 at 07:00

E-mail tips to tonyo94 AT gmail DOT com or follow us on Twitter. We also post updates at our Facebook author page. After every new story we send out an alert to our e-mail list and our FB page.

Our new book with Paulette Cooper, Battlefield Scientology: Exposing L. Ron Hubbard’s dangerous ‘religion’ is now on sale at Amazon in paperback and Kindle formats. Our book about Paulette, The Unbreakable Miss Lovely: How the Church of Scientology tried to destroy Paulette Cooper, is on sale at Amazon in paperback, Kindle, and audiobook versions. We’ve posted photographs of Paulette and scenes from her life at a separate location. Reader Sookie put together a complete index. More information can also be found at the book’s dedicated page.

The Best of the Underground Bunker, 1995-2018 Just starting out here? We’ve picked out the most important stories we’ve covered here at the Underground Bunker (2012-2018), The Village Voice (2008-2012), New Times Los Angeles (1999-2002) and the Phoenix New Times (1995-1999)

Other links: BLOGGING DIANETICS: Reading Scientology’s founding text cover to cover | UP THE BRIDGE: Claire Headley and Bruce Hines train us as Scientologists | GETTING OUR ETHICS IN: Jefferson Hawkins explains Scientology’s system of justice | SCIENTOLOGY MYTHBUSTING: Historian Jon Atack discusses key Scientology concepts | Shelly Miscavige, ten years gone | The Lisa McPherson story told in real time | The Cathriona White stories | The Leah Remini ‘Knowledge Reports’ | Hear audio of a Scientology excommunication | Scientology’s little day care of horrors | Whatever happened to Steve Fishman? | Felony charges for Scientology’s drug rehab scam | Why Scientology digs bomb-proof vaults in the desert | PZ Myers reads L. Ron Hubbard’s “A History of Man” | Scientology’s Master Spies | The mystery of the richest Scientologist and his wayward sons | Scientology’s shocking mistreatment of the mentally ill | The Underground Bunker’s Official Theme Song | The Underground Bunker FAQ

Watch our short videos that explain Scientology’s controversies in three minutes or less…

Check your whale level at our dedicated page for status updates, or join us at the Underground Bunker’s Facebook discussion group for more frivolity.

Our non-Scientology stories: Robert Burnham Jr., the man who inscribed the universe | Notorious alt-right inspiration Kevin MacDonald and his theories about Jewish DNA | The selling of the “Phoenix Lights” | Astronomer Harlow Shapley‘s FBI file | Sex, spies, and local TV news | Battling Babe-Hounds: Ross Jeffries v. R. Don Steele


Share Button
Print Friendly, PDF & Email